Q & A

Can the planet handle nine billion people?

Relentless population and economic growth is pressuring the systems that support human life. The head of a leading environmental advocacy organization talks about balancing ideals, such as the conservation of natural treasures, with the pragmatic steps and alliances necessary to get the planet on a sustainable path.


Q: How do you think about balancing some of the ideals of your organization with the pragmatic steps you have to take to realize them?
First of all, we're an environmental organization. So our job is to really figure out the most effective ways to protect the long-term sustainability of the planet. The human race depends on natural resources day in and day out; we need water, air, food, wood, you name it. We have a population of over six billion people, we're going to go up to nine billion people; how can the planet provide for that many people unless we figure out a much more efficient, effective, and sustainable way to use resources?

For the most part, there's much greater awareness of the need to do that than there used to be. I've been in this field for over 30 years, and I've seen a transition. But we're approaching the 40th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22, and what I love about Earth Day is that every corporation in America becomes very green in its advertising for that particular week. Our challenge is to make sure that corporate sustainability is a system that can be measured. There are a lot of lofty goals, but the goals should have very specific metrics and there should be transparency to show that those goals are being reached.

I don't think every corporation is green by any stretch of the imagination. But every major corporation in America has a sustainability officer. Every CEO is aware of the range of issues. And then the question is, how do the economics balance out? In a lot of areas, you can save a lot of money by adopting a more thoughtful approach to the way you use resources. A number of companies that have really focused on sustainability have seen it as a cost-saving opportunity. Walmart leads the pack on that. They obviously have a huge footprint and an enormous supply chain, and they have a huge impact through both their own actions and their influence.

Q: I imagine you want to encourage companies that are trying to be more efficient and partner with them. Is there a challenge when pushing them to make harder choices?
Sometimes I am amused that a lot of companies want to make their operations greener — the way their buildings function, the way their headquarters function, things like that — but don’t necessarily make the product that they're manufacturing or selling greener. An example of that was when Ford Motor Company did the green roof on the Rouge Center. It was an amazing commitment on their part. But at that time the cars weren't getting greener. They were still producing SUVs. That has shifted in just the last couple of years, as the economics of the car companies have gone down and the price of gasoline went up. So now the cars are beginning to catch up with the roof.

At the time, the roof was great. It sent a signal about how you can make a building much more efficient. But there are millions of vehicles out there on the road burning gasoline and creating emissions. The products need to become greener and greener, and that's happening — slowly, but it's happening.

Q: Is that happening because people want that or because of corporate leadership?
I think it's a combination. I remember talking with people in the automobile industry about why they were building these huge SUVs that are incredibly fuel inefficient. Well, the public wants them. Well, how does the public know they want them? Because there's this massive marketing campaign that's telling them they want them.

So I'm very pleased now to see marketing campaigns that talk about the value of more sustainable, greener, more efficient products. But you still have to document that these products are greener and you have to set standards. And that's where public policy comes in. Basically, if you're going to sustain the resources of the planet, it has to be something that is not just voluntary, that everybody is part of, where everybody has to meet the same bar. If you can go beyond that bar, that's great. That will give you an advantage.

Q: Where do you see the standards coming from? Is it only regulation?
They come from everywhere. For instance, we worked early on at making refrigerators more efficient. So now refrigerators are 75% more efficient than they were in 1980, and they do more. That didn't start out with regulation. That actually started out with a competition — the Golden Carrot Award in California — where the appliance companies competed for an award that the utilities would provide for the most energy-efficient refrigerator. But then that shifted the entire refrigerator market over time. Now all refrigerators are more efficient, and there is an appliance standard that mandates that refrigerators and washing machines and air conditioners be more energy efficient.

In some cases, states set standards, and often a state like California or New York will be an early adopter. And then, eventually, that gets to be a federal standard. And then the market shifts and everything is manufactured that way. In another example, Walmart had a campaign to sell 100 million compact fluorescent light bulbs. We helped them design the specifications of those light bulbs. They sold 145 million light bulbs. Well, 145 million compact fluorescent light bulbs really shifts the market for light bulbs. It represents I don't know how many power plants worth of saved power. And now compact fluorescent light bulbs are definitely in the mainstream. It's not the odd person who has them.

That's what it takes to shift the market. It takes time. It takes the product itself. It takes education. It takes standards. And it takes campaigns to get it out there.

Q: When that market shifts, it can have a powerful effect on individuals. A lot of people thought the compact fluorescent light bulbs gave terrible light. They didn't want them. Now they're all over and people are used to them.
Also, as the market began to shift, then there was much more investment in the technology — how to improve the color, how to ensure that they endured longer. And now it's shifting even more, because it's going to LEDs.

Q: How do you encourage transparency and increase consumers' ability to evaluate claims made about the greenness of products?
Labeling requirements, I think, are both important and going to increase. We’ve seen that in the health area, where you have to label for trans fat, or in New York City now, where if you go to Starbucks, you’re going to find out how many calories are in your venti latte. That's going to happen more with the chemical content of products, whether it's phthalates or whatever people might be concerned about. That's an area of a lot of innovation. If you have an iPhone, there'll be apps that allow you to go to a store and look up what's in a product. There are more and more tools to make things transparent and available. You don't have to be such a sleuth.

For a lot of products, companies feel more vulnerable on that. There's a lot of bottom-up pressure. They're going to respond to the consumer, but you need standards too. So it's push-pull.

Q: Some sustainability factors are harder to measure, like the carbon footprint of a product.
People are working on that all the time. Those things are all going to improve. Particularly as we start actually regulating carbon and putting a price on carbon, which I hope we begin to do very soon, being able to document those reductions is going to be very important.

Q: Speaking of carbon emissions, I understand that's your organization's top priority.
We need national legislation to put a price on carbon, because we think that will actually unleash a lot of innovation and investment in finding the least-cost way to lower carbon emissions. We have examples of that that have been successful — the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 that reduced sulfur and the Montreal Protocol that eliminated chlorofluorocarbons. It's a mechanism that really works. There is also a lot of support for this approach in the business community, which wants to invest in new energy opportunities. They want to know what the rules are. These are major capital investments that are realized over 60 years, if you’re investing in a new power plant. Until you know what the standard is going to be, you can't figure out what your investment is across a number of different energy strategies, whether it's efficiency, renewables, natural gas as a good transition fuel, coal with carbon capture and storage, or nuclear.

There's a great opportunity in the United States to both create green jobs and be very competitive with the rest of the world. They are making huge investments in green technology in China and in Europe, and we're sort of sandwiched between the two and we're not doing it. We're losing out, and our companies are losing out. Our workers are losing out. And I think we're running out of time.

Q: When you look at options for putting a price on carbon, like cap and trade or a tax, how do you decide what to support?
There's policy and politics. We're a policy shop, but you can't get the policy without politics. So, we want a price on carbon. From a political standpoint, a cap is the way to go. Often the economists tell you that the most efficient way to do it is the tax. Politicians don't go for taxes. They just don't. So whether it is better or not, it’s not an option.

Our aim is to get a price on carbon as quickly as possible, so we're going to go with where we think we can get the support to actually get a bill passed.

We want to unleash the least-cost option out there. The least-cost option is investing in efficiency. We think we can easily reduce current emissions 20 to 30% in our buildings, but we're not doing it. And that's just low-hanging fruit that's sitting there. But there are reasons that that hasn't happened. And part of the reason is that there's no policy formulation that really incentivizes it, and so that's what we're looking for.

Q: Is it frustrating watching your number one priority go through the legislative process?
It's really frustrating. We have a president who is committed to getting a comprehensive climate and energy bill. We have a world that is expecting the U.S. to take action. From a scientific standpoint, on climate change, the evidence is there that time is running out. And there's an opportunity to create an energy future that addresses climate change and creates jobs and makes the United States more secure. So, we're frustrated that the politics aren't more there for us. But that doesn't mean that we're not going to work it as hard as we can.

Q: It sounds like you see two potential futures, one that you're trying to avoid and one that you’re trying to steer things towards.
I'm an optimist. I think you have to be optimistic to work on these things day in and day out, because the trends are mostly in the wrong direction. Biodiversity and pollution of the oceans and carbon emissions — we're losing ground on all of those. But on the other hand, if you look at what we have achieved over the last 40 years, our air is generally cleaner, our drinking water is cleaner, we're more efficient in how we use things. And I'm a believer in innovation and creativity, and I think that we can make the changes that we need to. That's what motivates me. I do think that you've got to have a political framework, a policy framework that allows that to happen. It will not happen on its own.

Q: I wanted to go back to the very first thing you said. You said that you're an environmental group, and then very quickly explained how the environment is necessary to sustain human life. Are the two sometimes at odds?
We're the Natural Resources Defense Council. We protect natural resources, so part of that is a very tough stand to protect places and species and resources that are unique, that are so significant to the planet that they should just be maintained in a completely natural state. At the same time, we recognize that there are billions of people on the planet and we all have needs every day, and we have to supply for those. So the big challenge is how you balance that out. That's a really important issue worldwide and one that's going to shape what future we end up with.

In the United States, we're a rich nation. We've actually cleaned up our environment considerably, although it's an ongoing task. But when you look worldwide, and when you particularly look at the developing world, the primary driver of course is to pull people out of poverty and to create long-term economic well-being. That said, the per capita use in the developing world of every single resource is just a fraction of what we use. So they're entitled to go up, and we have to go way, way down. In a lot of these categories, we use 25% of the world's resources, and we're less than 5% of the world's population.

Those things have to get much more in balance for the long-term sustainability of our planet. And that is really tough. You can do a lot through efficiency, but you also have to do a lot through behavioral changes and through growing education and awareness. The American lifestyle is not sustainable worldwide. There is no question about it. So that puts us at odds with a lot of people across the world. And I think we have to come to grips with that.

Interview conducted and edited by Jonathan T.F. Weisberg

Former President, National Resources Defense Council